How increased federal funding is leading to more inequities in Australia's education system.

Uncategorized Apr 18, 2022
With a federal election upcoming, it's necessary to talk about the issues surrounding Australia's education system. In particular, the increasing inequities that seem to be compounding over time, and set to get worse unless there is some proactive intervention.
For a long time now there has been a widening gap between the quality of education received in public schools versus private schools. Private schools generally have:
  • Less staff turnover
  • Higher levels of staff morale, collaboration and collective efficacy (which Hattie rates as the number 1 effect size on student outcomes)
  • Better facilities
  • Better access to technology
  • More extra-curricular activities
  • Higher levels of performance in NAPLAN and ATAR
This is creating a culture in Australia where it is now normal to 'shop around' for the best school (as long as your finances can afford it). In this way, our system is becoming more and more like America's, in which education is a commodity to be purchased, rather than a right that should be freely and fairly provided by the government, funded by the taxes we pay.
Compare Australia's education system to high-performing systems such as Finland, where education is free and you simply send your child to the school in your area. The quality of education from school to school does not differ dramatically, no matter the demographic. This has the added benefit of cultivating strong, connected communities, which helps to decrease crime rates and increase social wellbeing.
Unfortunately, we share another similarity with the U.S - in that we have had a 20-year steady decline on international benchmarks.
Politicians like to blame this on teacher quality, reflected by the recent comments made by acting Education Minister Stuart Robert, blaming 'dud teachers' for the decline in students results. However, the fact is that the model of education funding currently used in Australia has a lot to answer for.
Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish educator and scholar, and deputy director of the Gonski Insitute for Education, criticises Australia's education system for the inequities present within it. He says that Australia has some of the best schools in the world - but not for everyone.
The Gonski report back in 2012 found that there was was too much inequity in educational outcomes in Australia, and recommended that the distribution of public money to schools be made on a needs-basis. This included reducing payments to overfunded schools that didn't need them. The report stated that funding for schools should be calculated on a per student basis with additional loading for disadvantage factors. Based on this, funding would go where it is actually needed. However, this has not happened.
Instead, the federal government's recent budget announcements stipulated that public school funding is set to decrease by $559 million over the next 3 years, whilst private school funding will increase by 2.6 billion. Unfortunately, this is not a new trend that we are seeing - Commonwealth and state funding for private schools has increased at nearly 5 times the rate of public schools over the last decade. In some disadvantaged public schools, the funding per student has actually decreased over the years.
Part of the reason for this, in accordance with the current financial agreement, is that the Federal government is responsible for contributing 80% of private school funding, with the states responsible for the remaining 20%. However this arrangement is reversed for public schools. As there are more public schools that private schools, this means that the states are responsible for the majority of education funding in Australia.
However, due to the vertical fiscal imbalance (where the federal government collect the majority of taxes, leaving the states reliant on federal grants and GST), the states are often struggling for resources, meaning that the public schools suffer. These has led to a blame-game between the 2 levels of government, decreasing accountability and leading to a lack of real action designed to solve the problem.
When private schools have access to not only more reliable government funding, but also school fees, it's no wonder that they can afford better facilities, offer better experiences, and attract more students and teachers. And the more students that a private school attracts, the more funding that they will get based on these funding arrangements.
On the other hand, when public schools loose students to private schools due to deteriorating facilities and sub-standard learning conditions, their funding decreases, further perpetuating the underlying issues, and further disadvantaging the students who have no choice but to stay there. Less funding leads to less teachers, higher class sizes, increased teacher workloads (leading to higher staff turnover), less funding to accomodate for special needs (which public schools tend to have more of), less funding for school counsellors and nurses, less funding for technology and other teaching resources, and the list goes on.
It's clear to see that this funding arrangement is actually creating more inequity in our system. The more money that the federal government allocates to education, the more inequity that will result.
It is a shame that education continues to be such a highly-politicised issue. The education of our children should not be used for political point-scoring, and the funding of our education system should be a matter of high priority for all Australians. If we want all children to gain high-quality education, and leave school with the skills that they need for a successful future, then proper funding must be provided, and better collaboration between federal and state governments must occur. It's time for a fairer funding arrangement made to benefit every student, not just the one's that can afford private school.
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